So often ignored as the so called “little brother” of the more glamorous Champions League, the Europa League has garnered some extra attention from the English media this season.
This is mainly due to the participation of big guns Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur and surprise package Newcastle United. The English clubs are joined by some familiar faces in the form of Turkish giants Fenerbache and former Champions League winners Inter Milan.
The surprise at this stage is that there aren’t more of Europe’s top sides left in the competition and some great teams have fallen already. Bayer Leverkusen, Napoli and holders Atletico Madrid have all crashed out earlier than expected and there are now a number of sides left in the competitions that no-one predicted, here are the top three.
3. FC Basel
Perhaps for some followers of European football it isn’t a surprise to see the Swiss champions in the knockout stages after their remarkable victories over Manchester United and Bayern Munich in last season’s Champions League.
The thing that places their achievements this season in greater context is the loss of two of their most influential stars. First Xherdan Shaqiri joined the aforementioned Munich and then fellow midfielder Granit Xhaka joined him in Germany after signing with Borussia Monchengladbach.
Despite this, Basel managed to see of Portuguese side Sporting Lisbon in the group stages and then managed to overcome a dangerous Dnipro side to set up their clash with Liverpool’s conquerors Zenit St Petersburg. Having managed to avoid defeat in the Ukraine Basel will now be confident of their chances of getting a result in Russia. They will however be wary of the step up in class that they are facing as they prepare to combat the threat of Hulk amongst others.
Whilst it was Malaga who stole the show as the surprise package in La Liga last season, it was Levante who ran them pretty close by finishing 6th above the likes of Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao to clinch European qualification. One of their stars of last season, Arouna Koné left over summer to join Wigan in the Premier League, but nevertheless the Spanish side have still over performed in this season’s competition.
In the group stages it was surprising to see them emerge above Dutch side FC Twente and then they managed to triumph over Olympiakos, who beat Arsenal in the Champions League group stage. Levante now face off against Russian team Rubin Kazan who signed talented Frenchman Yann M’Vila over the winter transfer window.
The match will see striker Obafemi Martins return to his former club for the first time since signing for Levante on a free over summer. The team from Valencia are slightly off the pace this season in the league so qualification for next season’s competition is looking increasingly unlikely. What this means is that they will go all out to enjoy their experience this season as much as possible.
1. Viktoria Plzen
Perhaps the greatest story of all from this season’s Europa League. Surprise winners of the Czech top division in 2011 Plzen have managed to produce some sensational results this year and thoroughly deserve to be where they are. Captained by the extremely experienced and technical Pavel Horváth Plzen first had to overcome a group containing holders Atletico Madrid, Academia of Portugal and the always dangerous Hapoel Tel-Aviv.
Not only did the Czech side qualify they actually finished top after some impressive performances, most notably defeating Madrid 1-0 at home. Next up for Plzen was Italian side Napoli who, despite losing Ezequiel Lavezzi to PSG over summer still possess a deadly front line capable of worrying the best European defences.
The Italian side, who are second in Serie A and competing for the title with Juventus were comprehensively beaten 5-0 over the two legs and in reality the tie was over after the first leg. Plzen were ruthless in Italy and left Naples with a 3-0 win under their belts and then scored twice more in the return fixture. They now come up against Fenerbache, who are a dangerous side but at the moment Plzen won’t be fearing anyone at all.
Celtic’s performances in the Champions League this year have been heroic but ultimately they fell short and any upset enthusiasts will now have to turn their attention to the Champions League’s sister competition.
The Europa League has produced some amazing shocks so far and with a number of dark horses left in the competition you can’t help but feel there are still a few left.
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